Transparency. Thats what the pet food recalls of early 2007 taught us to value in a pet food company. In the aftermath of that event, we received hundreds of accounts from concerned owners who were understandably scared and unnecessarily frustrated when they tried to get information about their pets food. Some companies got it, and responded immediately with up-to-the-minute updates with pertinent information about their products on their websites and recorded messages on their toll-free phone lines. In our view, the best ones were the companies that stated immediately where their foods were made, where their ingredients came from, and what they were doing to ensure their products were safe.
But many other companies stonewalled, insisting that their products were safe but refusing to offer any corroborating evidence! Even faced with grievously sick cats or dogs, many owners could not get any useful information from the pet food companies whose products they used.
This may be business as usual for large, conglomerate pet food makers; goodness knows its certainly true of most processed human food makers. But when a dog owner pays in the area of $2 a pound (or more) for what is marketed as the healthiest dog food on earth, it stings to learn that its maker wont so much as return a phoned or e-mailed inquiry about its ingredients especially when a dog or cat is fighting for its life in a veterinary hospital.
The weeks following the initial recall brought new disclosures about foreign-sourced ingredients, and some disparities between the ingredients listed on food labels and what the products actually contained. Thats when I decided that Whole Dog Journals 2008 dog food reviews would include only those products that met our usual selection criteria (see page 5) and met at least a minimum standard of transparency.
What it can tell you
Ive found that one fairly reliable indicator of a pet food companys willingness to disclose information about their products to consumers is whether or not they will discuss their manufacturing location although this is a recent phenomenon.
In 1997, my first year of reviewing dog food, none of the pet food company executives I interviewed would discuss their manufacturing location; historically, this was status quo for the industry. Thats proprietary information, theyd say, even if all of their competitors knew exactly where their products were made. Several developments in the past decade have changed this.
First was the establishment and growth of a super premium sector of the pet food market. Twenty years ago, most dog foods were pretty similar; all contained meat by-products and tons of grain. Trends toward peak nutrition, evolutionary diets, and holistic medicine trickled down into the world of companion animals, and a few, small, innovative companies started making products that contained more and higher-quality animal products. The success of these products, both in sales and actual performance in the dogs who ate them, led to rapid growth of this specialized niche of the pet food market.
As it grew in market share, the super premium sector became increasingly competitive. Companies have been going to greater lengths to find and utilize better and/or more novel ingredients to use (and feature in their advertising).
Theyve also sought out other unique and beneficial features to incorporate into their formulation, manufacture, packaging, and even corporate behavior to help their products stand out. Initially, the decision of some to disclose information about ingredient sourcing, product manufacturing, quality assurance (QA) processes, and other bits of previously secret processes was probably as much an effort to gain a marketing edge as it was a tool to increase consumer confidence.
Whatever a companys motivation for disclosing detailed information about its products, the consumer wins. Ive long appreciated companies that have educated personnel readily available and willing to communicate with consumers about their products. Its even better when the company has a veterinarian available who can discuss the companys products and a consumers dogs digestion or other health problems in detail.
Of course, its easy for company reps to mislead consumers who inquire about things they really dont know much about. During the 2007 recalls, it was only when frightened pet owners sought information from pet food makers, and shared this information with each other, that a number of companies were caught being disingenuous. This is another reason why I decided to make company transparency a new criterion for Whole Dog Journals food reviews, and also publish the results. Who would release false information where all your competitors are sure to read about it?
Why you need to know more than just the foods maker
Ive just told you why the disclosure of a foods manufacturer should be part of a pet owners selection process. Here are some reasons why this information should never be used as a sole selection criterion.
Large pet food manufacturers may make dozens (if not hundreds) of different products, formulated for a wide range of price points and using ingredients from a wide span of quality. And if a plant makes products for other companies, even the QA processes used during manufacture for different clients may be very different. The name of the maker alone is simply not enough to guarantee quality or confirm a lack thereof.
Known variously as private label manufacturers, contract manufacturers, or co-packers, production facilities make foods for other companies and make them according to their clients specifications. Co-packers generally specialize in the manufacture of a certain type of product (extruded, baked, canned), and may actually manufacture many competing brands within a category.
The most discriminating clients specify everything in their contracts, requiring their co-packer to use only specific ingredient sources and perform extraordinary quality-assurance procedures, and paying for independent, third-party audits of the manufacturing process. (Of course, all of this results in higher costs for clients and consumers.)
Companies that sell lower-quality, low-cost products generally have much less stringent contracts with their co-packers. Often, they allow the manufacturer to source ingredients, since the co-packer can usually purchase ingredients at a lower price, given that they often buy in quantities large enough to use in several clients products. Clients with low-cost products usually specify only that the product contain the ingredients it is supposed to and that the finished product meets the specified nutrient levels spelled out in the products guaranteed analysis and its up to the co-packer to accomplish this for an agreed-upon price. As we saw in the 2007 contaminated gluten recalls, this type of arrangement may set the stage for disaster, as the co-packer tries to find the least-expensive source of ingredients that meet the clients specs.
This is how different products that I would characterize as the highest and the lowest quality may come from the same manufacturing plant. This also explains why some very good products made at the Menu Foods (one of North Americas largest co-packers of canned pet foods) were completely untouched by the recalls, and so many low-cost store brands made there were recalled.
Unfortunately, many underinformed, alarmist (or simply alarmed) pet owners conclude that if a problem occurs at a plant, every product that originates at that plant (from then on) is unsafe. Early in the 2007 recalls, when the affected foods were thought to originate only at Menu Foods, many pet owners got the idea that all foods made at Menu must be unsafe. (And the hysteria went further; some concluded that if a company had one food made at Menu, that all the other companys foods, made elsewhere, must also be contaminated.)
This sort of reactionary conclusion has made many pet food company executives far less forthcoming about their products origins. Many companies stonewalled consumers in the face of the recall, and have since returned to a policy of nondisclosure, to prevent being unfairly associated with the recalls.
I have sympathy for companies that disclose all sorts of details about their products yet decline to state their manufacturer to preserve a genuinely exclusive relationship with a small co-packer. This feeling is tempered, however, by real distaste for the companies that hide behind the proprietary information excuse for refusing to disclose practically anything about their ingredient sourcing or quality, manufacturing, QA, product testing, etc., even as they allege their products to be of the finest quality. In my opinion, thats competing in the high-end sector of the pet food market on false pretenses.
What you should ask
So, while I value the willingness of a company to tell you where its products are made, this should be only the start of the information-sharing between consumers and a top-shelf pet food company.
By the way, companies that have their own manufacturing plants should not get a pass on these questions; distant clients may scrutinize a co-packer more thoroughly than a company owner! All companies, whether they own their plants or hire contract manufacturers, should be equally forthcoming about their manufacturing arrangements and the following:
■Product formulation (Who developed the formula, and what are his/her credentials? Can a consumer examine a list of all the products nutrient levels?)
■Ingredients (Do they source all their own ingredients? Can they provide full traceability on each ingredient used in their products? Are any of their products imported? Which ones and from where?)
■QA processes (Does the plant have an on-site lab, and what can it test for? Is an outside lab used to confirm these findings and independent tests? How often are samples pulled for testing? How often do your own employees visit your co-packer? Do your plants follow a hazard analysis and critical control point [HACCP] food safety program? Do you use third-party auditors to monitor your co-packers or even your own facility?
■Available support (If I feed my dog your food and he gets sick, what support will you be able to provide for me?)
Our usual business
On the following pages are products that meet not only our long-standing criteria for food selection (see sidebar, below) but also our new standard of transparency. Weve listed the makers of all our approved products. A few foods that were previously on our lists did not meet our new standard; these are noted in the chart on page 4.
Weve included more information about the products appearing on our approved foods list than ever. Weve noted which contact information is available on the packaging: Phone, mail, website? We appreciate easy-to-read (not coded) best by dates on packaging; we like it even more when the manufacturing date is also provided, so consumers can determine the foods precise degree of freshness. Our charts note which foods include this feature.
Weve also discussed the benefits of an expanded guaranteed analysis (GA) on a product label. Federal and state laws require only four nutrient levels (minimum levels of protein and fat, maximum levels of fiber and moisture) to be present, but anything that appears in the GA is subject to testing by state feed control officials; failures are subject to disciplinary action. Weve noted which extra nutrients are included on our approved products GA.
For the first time, we offered the food companies whose products we included on our approved dry foods list to submit a short statement about their products. We invited them to reference the sourcing of their ingredients, the testing and oversight they provide whatever they wanted, as long as the statement was 150 words or less. That seemed excessively short to them, and just about right to us, until we received 31 statements (and not all of them kept under the limit!). We had to edit and trim them to make them all fit, and even so, these next six pages are looking pretty grey; there wasnt any way we could use the photos we took of each package!
Please note that we did not fact-check or seek to verify the information provided by the companies for these statements; if you have questions, please do contact the companies and quiz them for more detail. By participating in this years review, each company has demonstrated an above-average willingness to provide corporate transparency.
Keep in mind, as ever, that the foods on our list are not the only good foods on the market! The list is offered as a starting place and for its value as a comparison to products you may find in your area. Use our list of selection criteria, below, to evaluate the brand of dog food you buy.
Also note that we have presented the foods on our list in alphabetic order by company. We do not rank order foods or say which ones are best, because whats best for every dog is different.
The proof is in the pudding. If your dog does not thrive on the food, with a glossy coat, itch-free skin, bright eyes, clear ears, and a happy, alert demeanor, it doesnt matter whether we like it or not switch! If your dogs health or attitude sours under the influence of a certain food, stop feeding it, note the ingredients, and find another food that contains different ingredients. Keep notes! Sometimes it takes years to find products that really suit your dog.